Monday, June 8, 2015 by Courtney Griffin

Board says no to SH45 SW

Austin’s Environmental Board is giving City Council a clear message: The State Highway 45 Southwest road project should not move forward.

At the board’s regular meeting Wednesday, members passed a motion declaring that they “(did) not support the building of SH45 SW as currently proposed.” Among other directives, the motion recommends that Council ask the Texas Department of Transportation to revoke the project’s approval and rework portions of SH45 SW’s Environmental Impact Study (EIS) before continuing. The issue will head to a Council committee this week.

The motion passed 5-0 with Board Members Brian Smith recused and James Schissler abstaining.

Read out loud and authored by Board Member Ruthie Redmond, the board’s recommendation addresses a laundry list of concerns surrounding TxDot’s environmental assertions. The board continues to stress that findings within TxDot’s draft, technical and final versions of its EIS are scientifically unsound.

TxDot’s Record of Decision (ROD), which gave the needed green light for the project’s continuance, also failed to address various environmental concerns expressed by the city of Austin and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the motion says.

Therefore, the board — through Council — wants TxDot to withdraw its Record of Decision and adequately address the city’s concerns surrounding the EIS before proceeding any further. The board is also requesting that TxDot wait until staff members complete dye trace studies involving Flint Ridge Cave before SH45 SW design work reconvenes.

The studies use dyed water to better model surface and groundwater systems around the cave. Because those studies remain unfinished, environmental board members question TxDot’s assertion that SH45 SW would have no impact on Flint Ridge Cave or water quality at Barton Springs.

The cave is a federally protected and environmentally sensitive recharge feature that feeds Barton Springs. The right of way for the proposed road is located 150 feet from the cave’s entrance.

Redmond also said board members want the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority to use a recently successful project management technique on SH45 SW. The technique was used in the construction of Austin’s Water Treatment Plant No. 4, resulting in no significant environmental impact.

“We called it Environmental Commissioning, and it was an independent environmental oversight team that was directly involved with the design and construction of the project, but wasn’t part of the project team,” said Chuck Lesniak, who is the city’s environmental officer. “Their only responsibility was to (ensure) environmental integrity.”

If developed now, the motion says, SH45 SW would present a potential risk to the city’s drinking water, specifically the water from the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer that is the sole source of drinking water for approximately 60,000 residents.

According to the motion, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said the federal permit status of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve Plan could also be at risk from unintended construction impacts. The BCPP has facilitated more than $4.5 billion in economic development since 1988, Redmond said.

Board members took issue with TxDot’s deviation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s requirement that the federally protected golden-cheeked warbler be studied for three years instead of one to determine the road’s impact on the species. Additionally, they listed concerns involving other federally protected environmental features in the area, including impacts to Flint Ridge Cave as well as the Austin blind salamander and the Barton Springs salamander, both of whom rely on the springs for their habitat.

Board members also noted in the motion the lack of a comprehensive look at the cumulative environmental impacts of potentially connected planned roadway systems, such as MoPac South, Interstate 35 and Highway 71 in Oak Hill.

Board Member Marisa Perales amended the motion before it passed, urging the city to request TxDOT withdraw the Record of Decision and address comments “by whatever means appropriate.” Perales said the broadened wording would inform the city that the board was not limiting them to a simple request, but that Council members could use other means, such as legal action.

If Council decides that TxDot’s EIS and the resulting Record of Decision is scientifically supportable, Environmental Board members advise the city manager to simply remain involved and keep a close eye on the design and construction of SH45 SW; they also request that TxDot, CTRMA and the city of Austin continue to search for transportation solutions in Southwest Austin that may relieve traffic congestion while protecting the environment.

Texas-Road-FM218-8974b” by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble)This image was made by Loadmaster (David R. Tribble) Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

City of Austin Environmental Commission: An advisory board to members of the Austin City Council. Its purview includes "all projects and programs which affect the quality of life for the citizens of Austin." In many cases, this includes development projects.

SH45SW: A controversial road project that supporters argue would ease traffic traveling through areas of far Southwest Travis and far Southeastern Hays County. Opponents argue that the environmental impact of the effort, which runs close to sensitive land, is not worth that risk. The debate over the issue goes back as far as the mid-1980s.

TxDOT: The transportation agency for the State of Texas.

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